Split those 3 square meals into 6 for better fuel efficiency

Nutrition starts in the mind. For many of us, we think three square meals or the four major groups.

Put those numbers out of your head. At the recent first meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutritionists in Las Vegas, the 300 some practitioners in attendance widely agreed that five to six more frequent meals is the best fuel plan for any athlete.

As for the four major food groups, one was meat and another was dairy, just the way the meat and dairy lobbies planned it in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the public focus, though a bit skewed in some circles, is more appropriately on the macronutrients protein, fat and the much-maligned carbohydrate.

"Always combine carbs with proteins and/or fats," said Susan Kleiner, a Mercer Island nutritionist and co-founder of the new sports nutritionists society. "It slows down digestion of the carbs. You have less peaks and valleys in your day."

And that is today's Carb Moment.

While the debate rages about balancing carbs, proteins and fats, there is energy to be gained and weight to be lost (if you need to drop some pounds) by torching your allegiance to three square meals. Or by eschewing the common scenario of skimping on breakfast and lunch to gorge on dinner.

Instead, it's time to try the Half-Now, Half-Later Diet.

Here's how it works: If you enjoy eating a hearty breakfast, split it into two meals about three hours apart. Eat the oatmeal with fruit when you get up; save the eggs and toast (you can make it into a sandwich and reheat it) or yogurt for midmorning.

If you don't like eating breakfast, stay open-minded about having a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts as your first meal of the day. Drink at least 1 cup of water. Then repeat your open-mindedness and snack choice (other possibilities: bagel with nut butter, slice of cheese and bag of pretzels, dry cereal and a latte) at midmorning.

Commit for two weeks; you likely will never revert to non-breakfast eater status.

At lunch, eat half of the sandwich and half of the rest of your lunch. Save the other half for about two to three hours later. People who have implemented this strategy successfully find it hard not to cheat on the two-hour mark -- but they report feeling more alert during the formerly "blah" part of their afternoons by holding off on the rest of lunch. Drinking water between your "lunches" can help.

By early dinnertime, often during your commute time, do yourself a good turn by snacking and drinking at least a cup of water. The idea is to indeed spoil some of your appetite at dinner.

"When we arrive home hungry and famished," said Kleiner, whose Internet site is www.powereating com, "we tend to overeat and don't make good food choices."

Plus, said Kleiner, by 7 to 8 p.m. our bodies naturally slow down and become more insulin-resistant because of circadian rhythms or the internal body clock. The insulin resistance means your metabolism works to store food as fat and not burn it as fuel.

Bad news for late-night diners: The effect is only more pronounced as the evening wanes.

The key to the before-dinner snack is making a healthy choice. Kleiner keeps bags of dried apricots and Holmquist roasted hazelnuts ("the best I've ever tasted, from B.C.") for her drive-time snacks. Another carry-around item is turkey or salmon jerky.

In any case, make it a snack with something other than carbs. A Purdue University study showed people who snacked on rice cakes an hour before dinner consumed more total calories and fat from the snack and subsequent meal than volunteers who ate a serving of peanuts an hour before dinner.

When it is dinnertime, on the Half-Now, Half-Later Diet, you naturally will feel less starved. You can make better choices about what to put on your plate (no lecturing allowed in this column space). You will be less inclined to reach for second or third helpings.

One tip: Researchers have found it takes the stomach about 20 minutes to "signal" the brain that it is full. Eating more slowly allows time for stomach-brain communication, plus you can savor your meal more along with the company. Even if you don't think like a gourmand, you still can serve your dinner in "courses."

There's biology to support the recommendation about smaller, more frequent meals. Research suggests a person can only process 800 or fewer calories at any one meal. The excess would be stored as fat.

Common sense plays a part. Too much food at any meal makes you sluggish and sleepy. The "Thanksgiving food coma" is not recommended for year-round use.

Even more persuasive at a gathering like the one in Las Vegas are the stories from the sports nutritionists about elite athletes who won medals or championships after changing their eating patterns.

Jackie Berning, a sports nutritionist at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, doesn't think it is a coincidence that getting the Denver Broncos to serve breakfast at their training facility on practice days helped the team win back-to-back championships.

Who's to argue? Studies clearly indicate students perform better cognitively after eating breakfast compared with their stomach-growling counterparts.

At day's end, what to eat for dinner or a small bedtime snack (a glass of milk still works wonders for body rest) is not a surprising list.

"The more you can keep away from refined foods, sugary foods and caffeine, all the better," said Kleiner. "But it is a time when you go a little heavier on the carbohydrates. It will improve your mood and your sleep."

No need to go half-now, half-later on that result.

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